Coming into the light

Solstice = sol (sun) + sistere (to stand)

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Anthony Gormley’s, ‘Another Place’, author photograph

The light becomes thinner each day. Not even a month on from the summer solstice and it creeps up, the darkness in the evening warning me that Autumn is just around the corner a knocking on my door. Where did it go, all the light? During the strange time we’ve just come through, the light was bright and the sun was strong just when we needed it. It was no different this year from any other, I know because I’ve tracked it – a good April and maybe May and then an indifferent summer. In my journal the one thing I note day in day out is the weather. Once upon a time I used to say I would go away for the winter, move somewhere with bright white life-giving light, but I have neither the money nor the time to do this, nor as the years go by, do I want to. I like the pathways of the year through the solstice in summer, in winter, tracking time.

 
In 2012 I wrote a prose poem for an anthology written during the hours leading to the summer solstice. Each writer was given one hour, mine was 5-6am a time I knew well because I used to get up three times a week to drive my daughter to swimming training, three very early mornings, three evenings and every Saturday. My poem was written when I was barely awake, the light was starting its early descent from the height of summer towards winter. It was a time of turning that year, for all of us, just as it is this year. At first I hated it, those early, bleary and barely awake mornings, energy dipping and diving with each mile I drove along the coast road, tracked by the world waking up second by slow second even in winter. Each solstice was a time for rejoicing and joy as the sky threatened or menaced or just cajoled me into thinking the world was awake with me when really it was just waiting to see what I would do. Bushes that were bare one minute in late winter into spring would suddenly sprout white blossom, elderflower slipped into berry in the blink of an eye. Then they’d reverse their journey back into the ground to wait the winter out. A blink and I’d miss it.

 
Driving along the same road along the coast every day I would notice the way the tide changed subtly. There’s a popular myth that the tide never comes in along the Sefton Coast, particularly at Southport or Formby but that’s untrue. I know because I’ve seen it. Now I know the seasons are changing by the way the sea changes, it gets more angry and listless as the year creeps on. On the morning I wrote the solstice poem the sea was a calm flat line, the sky pinking and glowing. As I was driving northwards, in my sights were the hills of the Lake District, on the way back I was greeted the other way by the Welsh hills; even on a good day you can see Snowdonia although it’s difficult to pick out from the undulating peaks which tip their eyes into the clouds before dipping down again. The distant peak looks like a place filled with story and music and voices calling you back into a past you’ve forgotten even existed. On a calm day you can almost hear them whisper, each time with something different to say.

 
The summer solstice sneaked up on us when we were indoors this year, behind our barriers, hunkering down so that when we emerged mole-like into the light over these past few weeks it was disappearing fast into the past taking our hopes with it. Everything has changed and it would be nice to say we’ve all had time to notice it – the flowers opening ever so slowly, the grass growing with no one to cut its unruly hair, the birds now fully fledged allowed to run free. In the past few weeks on my walks as I venture further out into the world I’ve seen: a family of mistle- thrush, a falcon, jackdaws unafraid to venture right up to my hand, a baby magpie its feathers tufted like a duster strutting like a cock o’ the walk and a black headed gull that walked tiptoe across the grass tripping sideways as though it was wearing stilettos in a night club. I’ve walked across fields through narrow pathways with crops teasing their way higher each day, wind turbines beating a rhythm to match the pattern of my heartbeat as I move towards the change that is coming.

 

All this and more – a family of hedgehogs three babies and an adult zig zagging across our night time suburban lawn. The collective noun for hedgehogs: an array (too dull), a collection (really?) the one I like best ‘a prickle’ because that’s how they look, quivering and prickling their way through the grass knowing we are metres away, looking back for Mum and the cat skipping a heart beat over their heads spooked by the strange shapes making their way across the night garden. In an hour or two the cat will bring in some beauty of a moth for us, and we will shout and say ‘get out’ then look for the poor moth to rescue it while the cat sits pale-eyed with a paw beneath the fridge fidgeting it out from where its prey lies quivering.

Writers notice these things, we all notice these things. One by one, they come to light.

Fair Sweet and Quiet

The sketch of a moon in a dawn sky as the day slips in through a slow drip of cloud turned in on itself like the crease of a drowsy bed. Fair, quiet and sweet she is, this child of mine, and I don’t like to wake her, her face bent with sleep in this morning clad house with its cloak of red, indigo and orange. Her eyelids move, open, parting the light in a flutter of synapse and the impulse of nerve endings, the roots of a fire. Now? she asks with bleary eyes and hands pale in the mandolin of moonlight. She pulls the covers back, her day stretching ahead like a fairyland stumbled on by mistake. I watch her, waiting at the water’s edge, a toe in the water, eager to dive in.

Reardon, J. (2012) ‘Solstice, 24 Hours of Poetry’,  Beautiful Dragons Press

A few days in May

Friday

‘It is raining, and not especially warm. Neither am I feeling at my best. Time for a solitary, soothing supper.  Something mild and gently flavoured. Perhaps even a little bit extravagant. Who says food cannot heal?’   Nigel Slater, Kitchen Diaries

Healing is what we need at the moment.

I queue patiently, the line of us separated by our two metre markers snakes right round the car park but it moves, slowly. I left it a little late today but simply couldn’t face it any earlier so here I am. The cupboards are empty and someone had to come and that someone is me. It’s not raining but it is windy, very windy, and not ‘especially warm’.  The wind gusts up from the sea like a wild thing and has been rasping its breath against the windowpanes all day, throwing the black bamboo against the glass which thrashes its angry fingernails, ‘Let me in’, it shouts, wails, into the night and on into the morning.  I think of Catherine Earnshaw from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights every time I hear it, the terror of her fingernails clawing desperately at the glass from beyond life, wanting to be brought back, desperate to live again. This is how we are all feeling right now. The outside has felt so distant for weeks now, we travel towards the future with hope (some days) but mostly I’ve found myself staring at it, as though becalmed on some great ocean, the future no more than a sliver of land just out of my reach. We are almost there but not quite. Where can a writer find retreat these days, where can any of us find retreat?

The old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’ feels apt today. In use since at least the 18th century, I’ve always taken it to apply not to the month but clothing, ‘clout’ being an old word for a piece of clothing. But May is contrary, cold one minute and warm the next.  There is one more meaning to this saying – it refers to the May flower or hawthorn which flowers in May and until it is out ie. gone, keep your sweaters on!

On colder days like this I reach for recipe books, reading them to calm me, thinking about things I can cook to bring solace. I always did this, and now I have hope that this small thing will make a difference. I want to make a meal I’ve not made in twenty five years, gathering the herbs and spices around me, sweet and sour things and it feels extravagant because it will take hours to prepare and cook and chop and grind and while I do this I will think of nothing else. Maybe the radio will be on, music probably, Radio 6 Music for the weekend, Radio 3 in the week, music heals as much as food.

It’s been comforting at times over these past ten weeks, using stuff up, making do with whatever was in the cupboard, refusing to join the crush of panic buying and then being surprised by what we found. As a child I loved Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows especially the bit where Rat and Mole come across Mole’s long neglected home in the cold of a December night which he has been unable to locate, Mole’s excitement at finding himself at home, hurling himself through the door only to be greeted by ‘dust lying thick on everything, [and] the cheerless, deserted look of the long-neglected house, and its narrow, meagre dimensions, its worn and shabby contents’. His first thought is food, there is nothing to eat he laments as he collapses into despair. In the cupboard the ever resourceful Rat finds ‘a tin of sardines—a box of captain’s biscuits, nearly full—and a German sausage encased in silver paper’ such a feast that their humour is restored and suddenly all seems right with the world. Whenever I am heart sore I think of this little scene. It’s not just the food but the trudge through the snow and the wild wood to get there, the reward at the end.

Journeys, food, nature, the wild world around us which keeps on growing as we retreat inside.

Wednesday

Another day and the sun burns so bright it seems to have forgotten that it is still Spring and not yet summer but we are grateful for it.

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The wind has died down, I take this picture of my apple tree from beneath the branches looking up, the sky a startling blue behind it. The elderflower is out, creamy white and perfect and I have a plan to go out and pick some for cordial.  I think back to the old saying again and remember that you should never bring May blossoms into the house and I’m wondering – does this mean elderflower too? Bringing haw blossom into the house brings bad luck they say.   Siobhan Campbell’s wonderful poem ‘Quickthorn’ reminds us of this, an extract:

‘ Don’t bring haw into the house at night

or in any month with a red fruit in season

or when starlings bank against the light,

don’t bring haw in.’

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/49977/quickthorn

So don’t take your warm clothes off until the May blossom is out because cold weather can return during the spring months and don’t, ever, bring hawthorn in. I long to bring elderflower in though and carry armfuls back from our walk, the smell pungent and grassy as earth, I will take the risk and look for memories of better times in its blooms as Seamus Heaney wrote of elderflower in his Glanmore Sonnets:

‘I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,

Its berries a swart caviar of shot,

A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple.’

He likens the elderflower to a ‘snapping memory as I get older’ and I will take comfort from it. I add lemon and orange peel, then the juice, and sugar. The memory snaps at me, the scent of the elderflower a remembrance…

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My recipe for Elderflower Cordial*:

25 elderflower heads

Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and I orange, plus their juice (about 150ml)

I kg sugar

Inspect elderflower for insects and remove them. Place flower heads in a large bowl with the orange and lemon zest. Bring 1.5 litres of water to boil and pour over the flowers and zest. Cover and leave overnight.

Strain the liquid through a jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar, lemon and orange juice. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar then bring to a simmer for a few minutes.

Use a funnel to pout hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles.

*Taken from Preserves by Pam Corbin, River Cottage Handbook No 2

 

 

Crab apple jelly

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Our walks have been limited during this lock down. This means different things to each of us and for me it means the long walks along the coast have gone, with the wind and the brine in my throat, the splash of salt in the air. I miss this very much. We all miss something don’t we?  Instead I find myself taking the same route, skirting the edges of the housing estate in which I live, passing the building site where the shells of hundreds of new houses sit like cages, shuttered down, gated and padlocked, the windows releasing pieces of plastic which flap forlornly in the wind.  A few times a week we walk along the dried muddied paths, detritus and fly-tipping creating the effect of an abandoned world which has gone back to its roots. The new estate is on the back road which has been flooded all year, always has been, one wonders how anyone got planning permission for building there at all. One time it was a field full of horses tattered and tethered, hoof deep in mud.  I think about those horses each time I pass. They seem to belong to a different world altogether, one that is straining to come back.

We take this road because it’s quiet.  The other route through the euphemistically named ‘nature walk’ through the woods is always busy with dog walkers and not really a wood because it’s built on the debris from the original housing estate (where we now live) piled high, grown over reclaiming the wildness of the place it once was or hoped to be.  I can’t grow anything in my own garden because two inches down and all you find is rubble. Most neighbours have paved or concreted drives and gardens, some have astro turf which occasionally I see them hoover! Trees thrive though, hundreds of them.  We’ve seen foxes, rats (lots of them), stoat (sadly a dead one who dared to venture out) and then there’s the buzzard. Always there, stalking, hovering, buoyed up in the warm air currents above the wood that is growing in spite of the hostility of the ground from which it springs. In a few weeks I’m hoping the elderflower will be out although I have a feeling it will be late this year.

What have I learned from these walks? In this cramped and crowded space we have managed to find sanctuary and solitude. We go late at 5.30 when everyone has done their daily bit of exercise, and in the past few weeks and in such limited space I notice the numbers dwindling day by day. I used to walk these pathways before and never saw anyone, I’m sure it will go back to being the same, is it bad that I look forward to this?

There is one place, the last pathway we go through on our way home. It has a bench and it has a stream of sorts where there are two swans, a few ducks. The stream also has empty bottles and rubbish in it. The ducks don’t seem to mind. There’s an allotment I long to belong to, looking calm and tranquil with its little painted sheds and rows of neatly growing fruits and vegetables. A sign that life is continuing there as normal even if it has gone into stasis elsewhere.  Over the past six weeks the pathway has become more and more overgrown. Yellow primroses have given way to bluebells and the leaves have suddenly sprung into vibrant life in lime green sprightly brightness in every shade of nature’s making. From something unprepossessing as a housing estate has emerged this burst of life. We sit on our bench, not many pass at this later hour, we like to count who says ‘hello’ and who doesn’t. Most do. The buzzard alights sometimes in the tallest tree and it’s always quiet, every bird in its individual song. Make the most of this, I think, it won’t last.

I’d always found strength in sea, mountains were second and then came trees but I’ve discovered to borrow from Wordsworth’s Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey:

Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear, -both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

Nature forbids that time will stop as we have all stopped. I have one tree that marks this for me. In my mother’s garden is a crab apple tree which is now in bloom and from whose fruit, when the apples have fallen, I intend to make crab apple jelly. I say that now when the fruit is still pretty in its pink and white frill but when they fall and I have to collect them before they rot I will say it’s a waste of time, I’ve so much else to do and I will mean it when I say it.  20200423_141146The apples won’t stop though – they will grow and they will ripen and they will be ready to fall and although I will complain, I will make the jelly and remember this springtime when it was the trees that grew quietly alongside us, easing us along. And in the Autumn I will put the jars of bright jelly to the light ‘as clear and shining/ as stained glass and the colour of fire’* and pray that I will be grateful.

*from ‘Crab apple jelly’ by Vicki Feaver

 

All shall be well…

retreating

 

It’s something of an irony that at this time of enforced retreat I am trying to write a paper about the relationship between retreat and creativity. I should be an expert by now after almost four weeks of lockdown but I’m finding it harder to write each day. We are all across the world in isolation from COVID-19, a pandemic that is sweeping through our lives. This is an isolation that has been forced upon us and I’ve been thinking about whether a retreat that is enforced is any retreat at all.

The OED defines the noun ‘retreat’ variously as: ‘an act of moving back or withdrawing’, ‘a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax’ or ‘a period or place of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation’ All of these definitions imply silence and solitude. In these dark days, we are all in solitude looking for the light.
But I’ve discovered that the light comes from the most unlikely of places and from the most unlikely of voices and that’s what I’ve decided to focus on in this blog post. Two days before the lockdown I spent what turned out to be an extraordinary day in Liverpool as unexpected as it has continued to be sustaining, remaining in my consciousness as a reminder that there is still a life out there, waiting to picked up again.

It went like this:

I had a free ticket for an afternoon concert by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra performing Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite a piece of music that has long been the soundtrack to my life. I had a row of seats to myself, so many had cancelled because of Covid-19 that the seats were free. I felt the breath of the past on my shoulder as I listened, a tap and a whisper – remember this? I did remember: Peer Gynt was one of the stars of my parents’ record collection and I used to skate around on the carpet in the living room imagining that I was Torvill and Dean, the blade of my skates slipping earth bound on the friction of wool and carpet, the ice palace in my mind became the edge of the limit of my imagination.

At university I discovered Ibsen’s play ‘Peer Gynt’ and used it as the inspiration for my own first play ‘The Wheel’ performed at a Student Theatre Festival in Leicester. The play was about a group of survivors left at the end of the world after a pandemic or a nuclear storm, I wasn’t specific, I didn’t think I needed to be, threat was everywhere. The nuclear disarmament movement was a constant feature of life, I marched for CND and supported the women of Greenham Common, if a nuclear bomb didn’t drop then a pandemic was expected every day. We knew about pandemics because we’d watched them on the TV (in the series ‘The Survivors’) and worried and obsessed by this I put it in a play, but in real life, it had yet to hit us. In the years between then and now we just forgot. More fool us. At the centre of my play was the Button moulder, Ibsen’s harbinger of death waiting at each corner, giving you just one more chance to redeem yourself before being melted down with the rest of the mass of humanity into his great ladle, each of us indistinguishable from the other. I’ve been thinking about the Button moulder these past few weeks, wondering where he is, reminding me that life must not be wasted but that he’s still there lurking somewhere waiting for those who have forgotten that. I don’t want to be one of those.

That same day, the day before everything changed, I went to the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, from where you can see the city glittering and spread out beneath your feet like a trail of breadcrumbs leading down to the mighty River Mersey. I attended a service in the beautiful Lady Chapel where we were a congregation of three and then, as I always do, I went to the bookshop. The bookshop is where I found Julian of Norwich, or to be precise, I found a perfect little book about Julian of Norwich by Janina Ramirez who paints a portrait of a woman of whom we know precious little other than that she took what seems to us today to be an bizarre decision to be walled up in a cell inside the church of St Julian in Norwich for almost 30 years. Her reason? So that she could retreat from the world and be able to focus on more spiritual matters without distraction, so that she could be ‘in the world but not of it’. Apart from her name (which she took from the church in which she was living) and the fact that her book Revelations of Divine Love is one the earliest surviving books written in English by a woman, we know almost nothing about her. What we do know is that Julian wrote ‘deceptively simple words, which exist outside time and will always ring true whenever and wherever they are read’ (Ramirez, J. 2016, p. 85). Julian survived the aftermath of the Black Death from 1348-9 and the plagues that hit Norwich four times between 1369 and 1387, ‘with death carts trundling down King Street, past her cell, Julian would never have felt far from reminders of the transience of life and inevitability of death’ (Ramirez, 2016, p.25).
I knew about Julian but had never read much about her until that day and then read what she had to say, discovering in the process a book that is ‘singularly optimistic, hopeful and finds a positive path through suffering’ (Ramirez, 2015, p.25). Words in a book that was written in a cell not more than a few metres wide. If that’s not an inspiration for a writer in the days we’re living through now then I don’t know what is.
We need Julian’s words today: ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.
I’m reading them over and over again.

 

With thanks to my reference:

‘Julian of Norwich’ A very brief history, (2016) by Janina Ramirez

Reading and remembering

 

 

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The son of a close friend of mine is reading anything he can get his hands on, hungry for books that will open his mind. Keen to add to his education, last summer I bought him three to add to his collection: Laurie Lee’s As I walked out one midsummer morning, Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. The latter because he was on his way to Cuba.

My friend told me he texted to say that he had been visiting all the sites in Our Man in Havana, all places Greene had visited himself during the 1950’s when he spent time in Cuba.  The book coming alive for him in a very real way, just as I hoped it would. A few weeks later his mother called to say it was my fault he had decided to head down to the south of Spain with his guitar over his shoulder, walking some of the way, hoping for a taste of the life he’d read about in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. He had a destination in mind, a music festival near Barcelona, he’s an extremely accomplished classical guitarist, I felt he would thrive in his intentions (he did) but of course she was worried (I would be). But I’m secretly delighted these books have had this effect on him and besides, Spain is a very different country to the one Laurie Lee found back in the 1930’s and my friend’s son knows Spain, has family there, it’s easier to navigate and survive in. He has a mobile phone and travel is easy, he can get back home in an instant if he wants to. I’ve yet to hear how he found the Chatwin, I wonder if he’ll find his way to Australia…

Jeanette Winterson talks about the salvation that can be achieved through reading.  ‘Inside books there is the perfect space,’ she writes in Art Objects, ‘and it is that space which allows the reader to escape from the problems of gravity’.  Reading allows us to exceed our limitations, to escape and retreat into other worlds. ‘Walled inside the little space marked out for me by family and class, it was the limitless world of the imagination that made it possible for me to scale the sheer face of other people’s assumptions’ (Winterson, 1995).

After giving the book to my friend’s son, I dug my old copy of As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning and decided to re-read it.  I haven’t read I since I was a teenager myself and back then it was one of those early books that opened the world of reading to me – along with Catcher in the Rye (doesn’t stand up to re-reading), Jane Eyre and The Mayor of Casterbridge (both bear much revisiting). My copy of As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning is still in surprisingly good condition with a price of 30p on the back, that’s how long I’ve had it!  Every page turned reminded me of how much I liked to travel when I was younger, full of hope and curiously in these times of great fear, only excitement. On the back of reading Lee’s book the same friend and I caught a flight to Malaga with no idea of where we were going to stay, carrying one small rucksack each on our backs. Our flight was delayed, we met an amazing woman at the airport who said we could rent one of her holiday apartments for a pittance. It was old-fashioned but clean and was part of a complex with a swimming pool. We rented a tinny red Fiat, found empty beaches, ate fish fresh from the sea and lived off beer and olives in our little apartment with Julio Iglesias singing on a rubbishy old tape player we found in the kitchen. In her concern for her son my friend has forgotten that now, it’s easy to forget. Those were very different times. Books remind you.

I would revisit Spain many times after that, the most recent in 2008 when I stayed with two young children in a small hotel, El Horcajo, converted from a farm near Grazalema in Andalucia.  In my journal written while I was there I find notes on gardens left wild running with limes, zucchini, hens and lizards. ‘Whole days here are spent watching’ I wrote that summer, as I sat beside a cold pool where swallows darted across the surface of the water, ‘the blue belly of the bird reflected on the surface of the water like a small slick of oil’. The journal is important because memory alone cannot be relied on – it must be true because I wrote it down. Must it? I try to filter truth from imagining as I read the words, but it seems to be there is truth both in the facts and the interpretation of them.

What I do remember most about that holiday was the town of Ronda, the deep gorge and the bridge above it from where men, women, children would be thrown to their deaths for disagreeing with the state, sometimes for a crime as slight as the theft of a loaf of bread. During the Spanish Civil War it could barely contain the bodies that were hurled down there and in my notebook I find the beginnings of a story I never finished about someone who remembers being told the story of an ancestor who lived in ‘the wrong place wrong time’ and who was thrown down into this gorge imagining for herself what it must have been like and not be able to find the words to describe it. Sometimes things are beyond words. I never wrote that story.

In my notes I find things I’d forgotten, an account of the old town of Ronda with its ‘cobbled streets with white houses and black wrought iron where at one point we found a student from the Music Academy playing guitar in a tiny square draped in bougainvillea’. I’d forgotten that but I remember it now and see the student sitting there on a low wall, the sound sweet and thin in the heat of the square. I think of my friend’s son making his way to Barcelona with his guitar. I learned classical guitar myself when I was younger and reading about it now in my journal, remembering the sound of it in that place taps in even now to a deep sense of longing, of things forgotten and things waiting to be rediscovered. If I close my eyes now I can hear it again. But if I hadn’t made notes about it I wonder if I would remember it at all?

Or is memory something else?  I’m thinking of my friend’s son and his journey to Cuba and to Spain and of the way we remember places we’ve forgotten when we hear about them through someone else’s memories and how they come alive again, as we discover them anew. And I’m thinking about the healing power of art, of music, of writing. It’s different for each one of us.  This healing power ‘cuts through noise and hurt, opens the wound to clean it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself. Wounds need to be taught to heal themselves’ (Winterson, 1995).

Winterson, J. (1995) Art Objects. Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, London: Vintage

A walk along the tideline: November

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I’m working on two pieces of writing at the moment, both set in or around the Sefton coast. I’ve written about this beach a lot, it was a place of adventure when I was a child a place of secrets as a teenager and now it has become a place of solace and solitude. It’s also a place where today I need answers.  In one piece of writing I’m dealing with dialogue so I have my ear to the ground hoping to catch snatches of conversation caught in the wind.  The other piece is a new novel so I’m trying to do November novel writing month NaNoWriMo and so far (half way through the month it’s working) but today I hit a wall and the beach is my refuge.

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It’s the calmest I’ve seen it in months, cold and brittle but also quietly at ease with itself, the tide just inching out leaving eddies and twists of water in its wake. Sometimes we get these tides here, quiet flat water where the silence is a thing of exceptional beauty and today is one of those days.  The bay which stretches out and round and down into the Irish Sea is peppered with wind turbines arcing their graceful arms across the water, the slant of sunlight making them seem like giants who know their place, feet planted low in the water and faces tilted to the sun. A horse makes its way slowly across the slants of sunlight on the sand as a murmuration of starlings hurls itself up and down, twisting and turning beneath them, nature in harmony with technology, a ballet in silence just for me.

The writing I’m doing is about the sand and what it gives and takes away round here. There are myths of course, urban myths about horses and carriages in the 1800’s that vanished in their race across the bay. And it’s easy to get cut off here as the seawater tricks you.  You head out to the sea across the sand as far as you dare and then when you look back you see that something is stopping you and panic sets in easily and quickly and suddenly your link to the land has gone. I remember doing this once, on a winter’s day walking a dog who had no fear of the water and I have a photograph to prove it. I’m smiling in my ruined red leather boots which were my pride and joy.  You can see the rime around the leather, icy seasalt and sand preserved forever in colours which are fading now as fast as the years that frame them.

Beachcombing, I find a bottle at my feet, not glass, green plastic, no label, it glints emerald in the sunlight, scarred by the turbulence of the waves that brought it here.  Beside it in the clumps of seaweed I see spools of blue fishing line, a scrap of red nylon and shells, hundreds of them. At certain times of the year, you see starfish but this is too late in the year. Nothing looks like itself, the detritus of people’s lives washed up here becomes something other. The jumble of objects becomes a modernist painting, the brush strokes rough and textured the colours muted and dark wrapped up in the sand from the mud banks.

The poet Jean Sprackland who knows this coast well wrote in her book ‘Strands, A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ * that: ‘Here on the beach, the usual significances are lost, the ordinary object is stripped of context and the familiar things made strange.’ And that’s what it looks like I think, watching the water watching the sand.  The only sounds are those one overhears, a snatch of conversation, a line out of place. I’m working on a script for radio so I eat them hungrily like the magpie all writers are. ‘My grandmother was from Oldham,’ one woman says and another says ‘What’s he like?’ and another ‘I’m not going to make it’ even though the beach is only yards away. I see a woman improbably wheeling a suitcase, the kind you see on trains, her friend has a bag of blankets and at the edge of the beach a family are lining the wooden gantry eating sandwiches and sipping hot chocolate in a merry row like seagulls watching the sea. The sun shines down on all of us even though the temperature is little more than five degrees.

I get home and open my notebook.  I write down the sounds and the smells and the glimpses into the gaps in people’s lives and they become something other.  Just over a week and fifteen thousand words into my novel, some lines of dialogue and an idea for the lot that was eluding me, and tomorrow seems a brighter day for writing.

* Jean Sprackland, Strands, A Year on discoveries on the beach (2012) London: Jonathan Cape

Waiting for a story, Robin Hood’s Bay

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The end of summer brought a week of walks in Robin Hood’s Bay through to Whitby and Ravenscar and further, the length as far as we could manage (but not all 131 miles) of the Cleveland Way.  The word ‘retreat’ implies solitude but this isn’t always the case.  A retreat is simply an escape from the ordinary and the hum drum where you take a step out of your regular life into another.  These walks remind me of this.  A retreat means in one breath ‘removal’ from familiarity to something new, an opportunity to be someone else, to do something else.  After all, we do things on holiday we’d never do at home, like buying liqueurs which taste sublime in the heat of a Spanish sunset but pale in the damp of an English Autumn. I remember dragging a flask of fresh sweet coconut water all the way back from Trinidad which tasted sour and bitter by the time we landed in Heathrow less than twenty four hours later.  The point of being away, I realized, was to enjoy being there and not try to bring it back or replicate it – my friend did warn me but did I listen? I can still taste that sweet cold water, I only have to close my eyes.

Noticing the small things, that’s the trick to remembering.  For a writer it’s about being ‘mindful’ and ‘wakeful’ to the vibrant world around you, wherever you are.  So when we walked the old railway track on the Cleveland Way towards Ravenscar up the cinder track and back down the tumbling rocky coast to Robin Hoods Bay through the old alum works, it wasn’t hard to imagine the industry churned out here in the shadows and ghosts of the men left behind. The distant sound of a hammer on stone in the quarry was a whisper in the wind, the silent frenzy of wings from the hundreds and hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies carrying the story of their journey across thousands of miles from the deserts of North Africa to land here on a ragged Yorkshire coastline in view of the cold and blue North Sea.

Halfway, we stopped for ham rolls on the cliff edge, a flat plain safe from the sheer drop and I looked up at the clouds and the butterflies and listened to the chatter of the walkers passing by, heard their feet treading the ancient way each one of us adding to the footsteps from the past. On the way back we went down to the beach, my poor feet cooled in the freezing water in rock pools so numerous on the slate flats they looked like tiny craters poking out of the sea.

For once, I didn’t write. I read and I read and I read but in my head I wrote, I built ideas and pictures and stories and I know they will make their way out into the world eventually.   In a café in Robin Hood’s Bay I found a Storytelling Chair which was worn and scuffed and lived in and waiting for a story to tell.  A story without a teller, now there’s a challenge.

August – a story of wolves and starlight

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We make the decision to climb up to Montchavin after dinner.  The path is dark; it runs straight up through the trees, a narrow passage carving its way through the night.  The ground is difficult going, rocky, uneven but in the winter it will be covered with snow making it flat and even.  This is ski territory, with purpose built villages perched on the mountains likes the houses of dolls which, in the snow, look like they belong here, but in the summer, in this 30 degree heat, fool us with their veneers as though – like a cutout saloon in a Western they would fall down around at the slightest breath.  These Alpine houses are built in layers of wood over concrete, heart-shaped holes and balconies of bold geraniums and bougainvillea vivid in their bright dresses adding to the effect of  kitsch and make-believe, but I love them all the same.    I am happy to be duped.  In the winter these narrow streets will become blankets of snow and icicles will hang from window sills like bitter teardrops.  We take comfort where we can.

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At the top of the path we emerge on to cobbled, carless streets, bustling and inviting.  We pass a window of stuffed animals – foxes, marmosets, partridges, a wild boar and in the corner, watching them all with teeth bared, a wolf.  No one else stops to look at them but I feel, for a moment, afraid of these wild things.  At the end of the 1800’s there were between ten and twenty thousand wolves in France, wiped out altogether by the end of the 1930’s but now I’ve read that there are around 300 wolves back in France. There was a confirmed sighting of a wolf in the Alpes Maritime very recently, so I can feel them, watching us as we walk, tracking our tread with steady steps tripping leaves and branches, twigs and air.  It is said, where the butterflies are, there the wolves will be, the pretty creatures feasting on shit to stay alive and in the daytime I notice the butterflies follow us, tiny blue souls trapped in cages of cloud.  Butterflies are said to be the souls of the dead but they are here, out in daylight where the living are and I feel them protecting us.

At night you can’t see the mountains, but you can hear them.  Their shadows dart in and out of the dots and collections of lights pockmarking the slopes.  In the daytime even in summer, the mountains are a jagged ridge, covered in cloud banks, the snow-fringed slope of Mont Blanc teasing you with winter promise as you descend the roads – now here, now there, now gone but tonight the only wolves we see are in the sky.  The yellow eye of the wolf is in Lupus, the constellation that is friends with Scorpius, Normus, Circinus, Centaurus and Libra.  And somewhere, over there – the mountains of Italy….from where the wolves came to France, slipping in unnoticed under the cover of night, of this collection of stars, to bring a balance to the bite, a measured existence.

Of course we have to walk back through the darkness which in this part of the world is never quite as dark as it should be at this summer time of year.  We hold the torches of our mobile phones to guide us, candle-like and then we hear them… the wolves. Or am I the only one? They are far away but with each howl they seem to come nearer even though they must be miles, hundreds of them, away from us. They sound so close they could be whispering in our ears. If one should come out of the forest now, what would we do?

‘At night, the eyes of wolves shine like candle flames’ Angela Carter wrote in ‘The Company of Wolves’ and if perchance the unwitting traveller should spy those eyes watching from the undergrowth ‘then he knows he must run’ she says.  We stop for a moment and the others think they hear something too, a dog barking? ‘They will be like shadows, they will be like wraiths’ Carter wrote and this is what it feels like as we stumble, moving more quickly down the mountain and laugh for fear of the things we cannot see. When we reach the house and warmth and light, the sounds all but vanish into the night. The wolves are on the outside and we are safe. For now.

I take up my pen thinking: this is where stories begin…

 

Scenes from an Italian restaurant

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Photo by Creative Vix on Pexels.com

So this is an odd sort of retreat – an Italian restaurant in the middle of a city I know and love well – Carluccio’s since you ask, but not the city, that’s my secret. It’s one of my favourite places this restaurant but it is a retreat, a writer’s retreat, because here I am sitting and writing.

And I’m not alone.  There are four of us, round the edges, three women and one man, laptops and notebooks and reading books open to make us feel less conspicuous, safer in our space. It’s wonderful really. I don’t know how they feel but I feel calm; I’m on retreat because no one (and I mean no one) knows I am here. And isn’t that a true retreat? Where you run away and tell no one where you are? I wish….

This isn’t the truth of course, that I’m running away. I’m here for work, teaching writing even though tonight I’m hiding. So far, in my notebook I’ve started a short story, drafted an idea for a radio play and listened into several fascinating conversations which (as any writer worth her salt will do) I’ve written dutifully in my notebook for future reference.  I’m taking my own advice on writing dialogue and opening my eyes and my ears to what I find around me. I listen in to one conversation about Italy, a holiday just returned from and a story about a boat trip and a beach and it brings back a memory…

I was staying with friends in the south of Italy one summer quite a long time ago near the town of Scilla not far from Reggio Calabria.  Known as the site where the Scylla, the great sea monster, thwarted Odysseus’s passage home from the Trojan War in Homer’s great epic poem ‘The Odyssey’.  Scilla boasts a rocky promontory which juts out under the sea into the Strait of Messina. My friends were sailors and had sailed through the Strait many times. The trick, they told me, was to stay in the centre of the Strait which had strong currents which pulled boats into the rocks, dashing the hull into pieces.  The currents could also throw them off track, upturn a boat trying to navigate its way through.  This had happened to them once, their boat was ruined.  Odysseus had to make a choice at this point in his journey – just like my friends: trust that they could navigate their way through the swirling pull of the vortex, the Charybdis, or be eaten by the Scylla which would reach down from the rocks and take every last man on the boat.   Between a rock and a hard place.  The myth taken from the reality. This was one of the first times I became aware of the way stories can turn into something else, but that somewhere, somehow, they hide the truth.

At the moment I’m thinking of fairy tales with my friend the artist, Natalie Sirett, for a collaboration on story telling: she’s seeing what I’m hearing and what we’re both searching for is where the truth begins. We’ll keep you posted.

February, whispers from the past

20190225_113243Winter is fading today in the blush of an unseasonally warm February. As I write I’m sitting in a café in Norwich Cathedral the sun blazing in through the windows, the stained glass casting rich patterns across the cobbled and uneven surfaces.  Norwich is a beautiful city.  I lived here once, back in the day when I was just beginning to explore words and the craft of writing, the start in many ways of my journey as a writer. I never came to this cathedral though and wonder now how I came to miss this place of peace and sanctuary.

I was born in a city with two cathedrals so they have always loomed large in my imagination. I remember being taken round the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool when it was still being built. I had a bag of small sweets in my pocket with a hole in, that scattered a trail through the aisles which I followed all the way back to the entrance with its strange bronze cast doorway with its abstracts shapes and sculptures.  Sometimes I like the vast swagger of a cathedral, their grand proclamations with history their ceilings of vaulted gold reaching up to the heavens.  In others I like the silence of the side chapels, the ones tucked away, a corner turned and a calm descends, the candles lit and something folds you in its arms.  It’s like theatre, the moment the lights go down and you think – what is going to happen now.

For a writer, these are rich pickings – the names on the tombs, barely readable blur into a past you can only imagine.  You run a finger along a name, along a well-polished marble edge and start to make up who they might be and what their stories might have been as barely heard voices whisper when you pass, ‘pick me, pick me, I have a story you can tell. Listen to me…’

I came here early today, killing time; the cloisters were flooded with sunlight, the voices of the past even more insistent in the silence. And if I listen carefully I feel I can hear them, the tap of a hammer on stone as the foundation stone is laid, the mumbled prayers of the monks making their way through the corridors towards the chapel at each of the holy hours of the day: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  I imagine their February was colder than this one all those hundreds of years ago, I see the snow whirling through the stone arches, the figures hunched up against the cold, the poverty of monastic life, the daily grind of it, the corruption of it too.

On the way in, I came across an exhibition by the Norfolk artist, James Kessell, ‘Gethsemane’. A small but immensely powerful exhibition in diverse media from print to digital to charcoal and coal on paper, the artist creating the work as the public wander about him.  Images from Aberfan, which reminded me of my own griefs as no doubt it is meant to, the prayer from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane ‘Thy will be done’, projected in broken words on the bare brick wall reminding me that I can’t change what will happen to me, what has happened. I just have to accept it.  The exhibition is only here for a week, I’m glad I caught it. This week marks a new beginning for me, one I thought would never come.

I want to write so many things, have so many ideas but some speak louder than others. I have an idea for something, it’s been in mind for the longest time and today in this space, it inches forward from the mist of thinking into the act of writing. From the stones and the names long forgotten on the tombstones, from the faces in James Kessell’s extraordinary drawings, the slant light across lapis lazuli windows and rubied glass, something is starting to emerge…